Running in Tarahumara culture

Running in Tarahumara culture

Media Release:

“Running in Tarahumara (Rarámuri) Culture,” just published in Current Anthropology (v61, no. 3 (June 2020): 356-379) studies the Tarahumara Native Americans of northern Mexico. For over a century, the Tarahumara have been famous for their long distance running traditions and abilities, with many accounts claiming they have superhuman athletic abilities that partly result from being uncontaminated by westernization. Now an international team of researchers (including a champion Tarahumara runner) combine their own observations with detailed interviews of elderly Tarahumara runners to dispel these stereotypical myths, which they term the “fallacy of the athletic savage.” Lieberman and colleagues use accounts by Tarahumara runners to detail the various ways Tarahumara used to run for hours to hunt animals, and they describe how the Tarahumara still run traditional long distance races that, for men, involve chasing a small wooden ball and, for women, a hoop. While these many different kinds of running have important social dimensions, running is also a spiritually vital form of prayer for the Tarahumara. Further, contrary to the fallacy of the athletic savage, Tarahumara runners –both men and women– struggle just as much as runners from other cultures to run long distances, and instead of being the natural “superathletes” that some journalists have claimed, they develop their endurance from regular hard work and other endurance physical activities such as lots of walking and dancing.

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Daniel E. Lieberman, Mickey Mahaffey, Silvino Cubesare Quimare, Nicholas B. Holowka, Ian J. Wallace, and Aaron L. Baggish, “Running in Tarahumara (Rarámuri) Culture: Persistence Hunting, Footracing, Dancing, Work, and the Fallacy of the Athletic Savage,” Current Anthropology 61, no. 3 (June 2020): 356-379.

Running the marathon barefoot

Abebe Bikila was a runner from Ethiopia who, running his first marathon won the Rome Olympics marathon on 10 September 1960 running barefoot without running shoes. He was a last minute addition to the Ethiopian team and the teams sponsor did not have enough time to organize running shoes for him and they had only two pairs left, of which neither was able to fitt him. He decided he would then run the race barefoot. At the subsequent Olympics in Tokyo in 1964, he again won the marathon, but did it this time wearing running shoes. He died in 1973 at the age of 41 from complications following a motor vehicle accident. Abebe Bikila is honored and revered in Ethiopia.

Abebe Bikila has a special place in the history of running, especially from those who advocate barefoot running as they hold him up as evidence that a marathon can be run barefoot. There was a fad a while back for doing away with running shoes and running barefoot. This was driven by a lot of websites, forums, books and social media commentary as something that was beneficial and better for runners. Lots of unsubstantiated claims was made for barefoot running, none of which stood up to subsequent scrutiny. This fad last a few years, probably peaking around 2013 with probably 25% of runners trying or dabbling it. The fad quickly dropped off when most who tried it got and injury or realized that it did not live up to all the claims that got made for it. It has now been relegated to the history books, with only a handful of hardcore barefoot runners still doing it.

There has been a lot of research done on barefoot running that those who like to support and advocate barefoot running offer as evidence that barefoot running was better than running in shoes. However, the research never showed that at all and was widely misinterpreted. All the research showed was that barefoot running was different to running in running shoes.

There were claims made that the first sub 2-hr marathon was going to be run barefoot. The folly of that claim is now obvious.